David McAlpine, M.D.
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Blood donation: Simple, selfless act to save lives
It's not often that you have the opportunity to do something simple that can save another person's life. But that's what occurs every time you donate blood. Every blood donation can help save or improve the lives of at least three people.
Physician scientists have built incredible, novel medications over the past few years, but donated blood products continue to provide proteins and clotting factors that are different than anything manufactured in a lab or designed in a pharmacy. These blood products continue to be lifesaving and life-changing. There is no gray area about it — blood products save lives.
How the blood donation process works
The voluntary donation process is quick and easy. You can donate at a community blood center or mobile local drive. You will be asked to complete a confidential medical history that includes questions about behaviors known to carry a higher risk of bloodborne infections. You also will undergo a brief physical exam that includes checking your blood pressure, pulse and temperature. A small sample of blood is taken from a finger prick and is used to check hemoglobin — the oxygen-carrying component of your blood. If your hemoglobin concentration is normal and you've met all other screening requirements, you can donate blood.
The most common type of donation is about a pint of whole blood, which is separated into these three components:
- Red blood cells — This is the component of blood that you may think of because these cells give blood its distinctive red color. Red blood cells are used when a person is bleeding and needs blood replenished.
- Platelets — They are used to prevent or stop active bleeding.
- Plasma — This is the liquid portion of your blood. Plasma, which is full of clotting factors, is used to stop bleeding.
How blood products are used in health care
Blood products are used every day in health care. Every day, a life can be saved because every two seconds someone in the U.S. needs blood products. This always will be true because there are so many reasons why people need blood. This includes ensuring safety during surgery and treating chronic diseases, such as kidney failure, anemia and cancer. From an emergency medicine physician perspective, giving blood products to critically ill or injured trauma patients is one of the most powerful and necessary interventions possible. Providing blood products to critically injured trauma patients saves lives every day and is particularly important for patients taking blood thinning medication, such as warfarin.
Mayo Clinic Health System stocks blood products in all hospitals with an Emergency Department, including small, rural hospitals. Also, blood products are stocked in the Mayo One medical helicopter at all times so patients who require transfusions can receive this lifesaving intervention right away.
Common concerns about donating blood
It is estimated that less than 3% of age-eligible Americans donate blood each year. That's a problem because the need for blood products remains every day.
There are three main reasons why people don't donate regularly:
- Infection — Some people are concerned that a donation will put them at risk for infection. A new sterile collection set, including the needle, is used for each donor. That means there is no risk of getting an infection or disease from needle use when donating blood.
- Worsening medical conditions — Others worry that donating will wear them out or worsen a current medical condition. Each person is screened and evaluated carefully to make sure that he or she can donate blood safely. Also, a typical donation is about one pint of blood and your body has between 10 and 12 pints. You have more than enough remaining blood in your body to transport nutrients and oxygen throughout your body and fight infection.
- Needles — Some people are worried about seeing blood or needles during the donation. These sights can make some people feel uneasy. During the donation process, you don't need to watch the needle being inserted or see any blood. Many people bring mobile devices or books to keep their focus elsewhere during their donation time.
Find a blood drive in your community, and learn about the Minnesota Blood Donor Program.
David McAlpine, M.D., is an Emergency Medicine physician in Austin and Albert Lea, Minnesota